The Playwright Who Fearlessly Reimagines America


With its multiracial cast, interest in interracial and queer intimacy and emphasis on race’s psychosexual dimension, “Sally & Tom” echoes recent theater hits like “Hamilton” and “Slave Play” in order to ironize both starry-eyed multiculturalism and cynical provocation. At one point, two members of the cast and crew — Geoff, who is white, and Devon, who is Black — are talking about the relationship. “Tom was nice to Sally,” Geoff says, nostalgically comparing Jefferson’s supposed chivalry to the coldness of contemporary hookups. “ ’Cause, I mean, they did stay together for over 30 years.” Devon retorts: “She was his slave, yo.” The company’s stage manager, Scout, is an aspiring Asian American actor who plays Jefferson’s younger daughter, Polly. In a nod to the vexations of nontraditional casting, she wonders whether she really has a role to play in this story. “Were there any Korean Americans in America in 1790?” she jokes. “How much skin do I actually have in this game?” The play’s jagged humor cuts in many directions at once, poking fun at the narrow and simplistic terms of our racial discourse. Instead, Parks asks us to reckon with the ways race confounds easy accounting.

In a striking scene from Luce’s play within the play, after Sally begs Jefferson not to send her family away, he attempts to elide his power over the teenage girl. “I love you,” he whispers. “I thank you,” Sally responds. At the performance I saw, the audience laughed at Sally’s answer. When Parks recounted the scene to me during a conversation, though, I did not interpret it as a joke. I heard it as both an assertion of a strategic transaction and an open question in Sally’s mind. Never mind love: Could good will and favor, the root of gratitude, be bestowed from slave to master? Could such warm feeling honestly coexist with the bitterness of unfreedom? Or was it just an act of sour piety to get along?

In March I saw Parks perform at Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall — not a play, but a set with her band, Sula and the Joyful Noise. (The band’s name is not a reference to Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel, “Sula,” as I first thought, but a childhood nickname Parks’s father gave her.) Parks isn’t new to music — she has played piano since she was a child, and has written songs for and played music in her plays. Inside the venue, as she met up with the other band members, the energy was warm. The room filled up with a multiracial and multigenerational group of friends and fans. The band, as Parks described it, is a “test kitchen,” and this was their first live gig.

Onstage, Parks was petite but mighty, with an electric guitar strapped in front of her. Her husband, Christian, armed with a perennially amused countenance and a deeply grooving bass, stood on one side of her. She is the one woman in the band of “dudes,” as she calls them, wearing a miniskirt and pink-glitter-dyed boots that once belonged to a beloved deceased neighbor, and a matching pink ruffled guitar strap, with her waist-length dreadlocks rolled up into huge buns as if she were a feminist superhero. Singing in a voice that sounded like what might happen if Bette Davis, Ida Cox and David Byrne had a baby, she channeled different personae. In one song, she embodied the spirit of a fugitive slave with a sardonic take on self-emancipation: “I have misplaced myself,” she repeated, eliciting a lively call and response from the crowd.

The lyrics and situation — a diverse crowd joining Parks to evoke the spirit of a runaway slave — felt like the kind of productive provocation Parks’s work insists on. She delivered a message from the American underside, welcoming all comers. In the venue, the fabled “e pluribus unum” was the song of the slave rather than that of the master.

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